Getting old happens, but losing your health doesn’t have to
Aging is such an individual thing, and it really isn’t just about the numbers; your 90 can resemble another person’s 70, depending on genetics and how you both lived your lives. But the flipside can also be true; your 70 can feel closer to 90 if you aren’t in good health. That’s a situation no one wants.
Do you know your own baseline for health? Have you been checked for the things that matter at your age?
If you’re doing fairly well physically and mentally, these things are easy to ignore; no one likes thinking of themselves as old, elderly or frail. But information is the best tool in the toolbox for good health; you can’t fix what you don’t know about. If you schedule regular appointments with your doctor and keep up with these tests, you have a better chance of staying on the younger side. No matter what age you are.
Here are a dozen important tests and screenings that men and women over age 65 should have.
- Blood pressure screening – A third of all Americans have high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but only half of those people are taking measures to control it. Blood pressure generally gets higher as we age, and is a factor in 7 out of 10 first heart attacks and 8 out of 10 first strokes. Your doctor’s office takes your blood pressure every time you visit, but they may not think to tell you the numbers unless you ask. So ask. In general, normal blood pressure is below 120 for the first number and below 80 for the second, according to the American Heart Association[i]. Screenings should be every two years at the least.
- Colonoscopy – We know, we know. You don’t want to schedule this. But you must. Colonoscopies have helped reduce deaths from colorectal cancer, which is the third most common type of cancer in U.S. men and women.[ii] Recommendations are for a first screening at age 50 and then every five years going forward until age 75; after which you and your doctor will determine whether you should continue with them.
- Bone density scan – This determines your bone density, and whether you are at risk for osteoporosis or a fracture in the following 10 years. Women should get this at age 65, and then as follow-up is needed.[iii]
- Cholesterol/lipid blood tests – This test measures your “good” (HDL) and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, which can be an indicator of heart attack or stroke risk. You should have it at least once every five years for those with low risk, more often for those who are older or at high risk.
- Diabetes (Type 2) screening – Type 2 diabetes occurs most often in those who are overweight and do not get much exercise. Testing – at least every three years – is especially important for those who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, are obese or who have a family history of diabetes.[iv]
- Mammogram – The recommended age to begin having mammograms has changed; it used to be 40 and is now 50, though not everyone has adhered to the later age.[v] Right now, the recommendation is for a woman to have a mammogram every two years until she is 75, and then talk with her physician about whether to continue.[vi]
- Pap smear – Pap smears screen for cervical cancer. While it is recommended that younger women have pap smears annually, those over 50 need only to be screened once every 1 to 3 years to age 65. After that, it’s between you and your doctor.[vii]
- Hearing test – It’s no surprise to anyone that hearing decreases with age, but it may surprise you to know just how many people are affected. Between ages 50-59, only 11.2 percent of people have hearing loss in both ears, but in the next decade, 24.7 percent are affected.[viii] Have this test every two years.[ix]
- Thyroid function test – The American Thyroid Foundation opens its website with an anecdote about 6 people between the ages of 65 and 84. Their various symptoms include heart flutters, severe constipation, weight loss, weight gain, a dry cough, hearing loss and hand tremors – and all can be attributed to a thyroid that is not functioning properly.[x]
- Prostate cancer screening – Prostate cancer tends to affect men who are 65 and older; it tends to develop and grow slowly and is not necessarily fatal. It is the most common cancer in men except for skin cancers,[xi] but the current screening test can produce false positives and/or results that are ambivalent as to whether the cancer involved will ultimately cause harm. The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force,[xii] which studies and recommends clinical-based preventative care, recommends against prostate-specific antigen (PSA)-based screening in men without symptoms.
- Skin check – Skin cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer; over the past 30 years, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined.[xiii] The most dangerous kind, melanoma, can be attributed to sun exposure. This means that the generations over age 65 now – the silent generation and many of the baby boomers cq last of baby boomers are now 53 – are coming to terms with a lifetime of damaging UV exposure (sunscreens were not widely accepted until the 1980s and 1990s).[xiv] The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends monthly self-checks[xv] and use of a self-exam body map that can be downloaded here. If you spot anything worrisome – or just to have a good starting point – make an appointment with a dermatologist.
- Vaccinations – It seems like a word more associated with children, but seniors need to pay attention. Vaccinations against the flu, pneumonia and shingles get a lot of attention, and they are important. But you may also need boosters of some of those childhood immunizations – tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough), according to the CDC. Check this chart and speak to your doctor about recommendations that are right for you.
[i] American Heart Association, Understanding Blood Pressure Readings
[ii] National Cancer Institute, Colorectal Cancer – Patient Version
[iii] Harvard.edu, Health, Screening after Age 75
[iv] AARP Health Encyclopedia, Diabetes Overview
[v] Breast Cancer.org, Mammography: Benefits, Risks, What You Need To Know
[vi] Harvard Health Publications, Screening After Age 75
[vii] Harvard Health Publications, Screening After Age 75
[viii] National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, Hearing Loss Increases With Age
[ix] Association of Independent Hearing Healthcare Professionals, Routine Hearing Checks – How Often?
[x]American Thyroid Association, Thyroid Disease in the Older Patient
[xi] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Prostate Cancer
[xii] U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, Final Recommendation Statement, Prostate Cancer Screening
[xiii] Skin Cancer Foundation, Skin Cancer Facts and Statistics
[xiv] New York Times, Sunscreen: A History
[xv] Skin Cancer Foundation, Early Detection and Self Exams